COLUMBUS, Ohio – The NHL will announce this weekend that the World Cup of Hockey is being resurrected, but with an unprecedented and controversial twist to the format.
Canada, the U.S., Russia, Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic will have NHL player-packed teams in the tournament. But the League has reportedly opted to fill the last two spots with a “Young Guns” team of 23-years-old-and-under North American players and a “European All-Star” team made up of players from orphan countries.
Young Americans. Young Canadians. Working together to defeat their idols from the U.S. and Canada in a World Cup tournament.
If there was one word shared by most NHL All-Stars in Columbus when asked about that World Cup format, it would be “awkward.”
“I don’t think Canadians like to play with Americans too much. I don’t know how that’d work,” joked Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty, with more than an element of truth. “But you’re there to win games. I don’t think it’d be an issue.”
“It would be a little …. Different. But you play against these guys all the time,” said Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of the Edmonton Oilers. “Still, seeing the Canadian logo coming at you all the time would be a little weird.”
Bobby Ryan of the Ottawa Senators, who has represented the U.S. internationally in three tournaments, couldn’t quite wrap his head around the notion of setting aside national pride for three periods were he young enough to play for the North American team.
“When the U.S. is playing against that Pan-American team, or the Young Guns team, that would be interesting to see,” he said.
“If you lost, inside you might say ‘well, at least U.S.A. got a couple of points out of it. It’s going to be a weird thing for those kids. But that Young Guns thing will take on a life of its own.”
EUROPEAN PRIDE OR DISRESPECT?
Anze Kopitar rolled his eyes.
After about a dozen questions from a dozen different reporters about the World Cup format, it’s understandable. This “rest of the world” team was practically invented for a player like Kopitar, an elite talent from the Los Angeles Kings who starred for his home nation of Slovenia in the Sochi Olympics.
But Slovenia couldn't support a World Cup team, and Kopitar would be off that major stage for the NHL.
“For selfish reasons now, it would be cool to part of that,” he said. “There are a lot of good players coming from Switzerland and Slovakia.”
Those two nations are on different tracks at the moment. Slovakia has seen its NHL player numbers dwindle, as well as participation numbers slip.
"`I would say if it was 10 years ago it would be upsetting because 10 years ago we had a lot of guys in the NHL. Right now, we got maybe 12. So that would be tough to make a team out of 12 guys," said Jaroslav Halak, Slovakian born goalie for the New York Islanders. "Obviously you need 20. It will be different to see [the rest of Euro all-star team] but at the same time I’m open to it. It would be nice to play with some other players from different countries.’’
Switzerland's national team has made huge strides in competing in world championships and the Olympics.
“They’ve proven every year that they’re a country that can steal games, compete,” said Ryan.
So the question becomes whether it hurts the tournament, and the game’s growth internationally, to buck the tradition of previous tournament by eschewing national teams like Switzerland for two all-star squads.
“Would it be better for the actual country? Probably, yeah,” said Kopitar, who witnessed the ripple effect of Slovenia’s run through his country’s hockey community.
“They have an argument to be there,” said Ryan. “But if it’s being held in the U.S. or Canada, it makes sense to have more players that are from there.”
Mark Streit, the Swiss-born Philadelphia Flyers defenseman, blasted the format recently in the Cherry Hill Courier-Post. "I don't like it at all. Not one thing about it," Streit said. "It's a nations tournament. You love playing for your country."
Would European players without a nation care about the World Cup? Zemgus Girgensons of the Buffalo Sabres believes they would.
“It’s awesome. It would be a little bit different, having random countries together, but it would increase the level of hockey there,” said the Latvian All-Star vote leader. “It would be sweet to go after the big countries.”
But what anthem will they play if the Euro teams win gold?
“That’s a good question. I didn’t really think that far,” said Girgensons. “Flip a coin maybe.”
THE LITTLE KIDS TABLE
Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning thought back to when he was a 22-year-old star. What would it have been like to be a Canadian, trying to defeat Canada, alongside American players.
“That would be pretty intimidating. I don’t know how I’d feel about that game. Whether I’d be cheering for them to win or our team to win,” he said.
Stamkos’s issue with the format is one a few elite young players are likely to share. Nathan MacKinnon, the brilliant 19-year-old for the Colorado Avalanche, could be a player Team Canada would want on its roster. But given his age, he’s be placed on the Young Guns – even if it’s every kid’s dream to represent his nation.
“You want to be on the Team Canada team,” said Stamkos, who has yet to do so in the Olympics.
So playing for the Young Stars is a bit like sitting at the kid’s table on Thanksgiving.
“Maybe that’s what they want it to feel like. The underdog. The young kids story,” wondered Stamkos.
The other word we heard from the NHL All-Stars about the Young Guns team was “underdog,” and that’s important to remember. The NHL doesn’t benefit if Roman Wick or Martin Plüss scores a huge goal in the World Cup to upset Canada or the U.S., because those guys don’t play in the NHL.
But if, say, it’s Jonathan Drouin of the Tampa Bay Lightning …
“Beating Canada would upset a couple people if that would happen,” said the 19-year-old winger. “But if you score a big goal, maybe you get elevated a bit as a star.”
It’s a chance for the next generation to get one over on the current one, or for European players from burgeoning (or struggling) hockey nations to take out a superpower.
Everyone loves an underdog. And despite being filled with NHL players rather than Swiss or Slovaks, these all-star World Cup teams would still be underdogs.
“As a U.S. guy, if you think back to the Miracle On Ice, that stuff only happens when you have those opportunities,” said St. Louis Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk.
“The young guys will play their hearts out. Hockey players have pride no matter what.”
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